...a grim little town some 1,400 ft above sea level, with an abominable climate of fog, snow, wind [and rain]... exposed to the bitter N and E winds, the least suitable place that could ever have been chosen for a town.
- Devon by WG Hoskins, 1954.
Princetown is a small town on Dartmoor, a National Park in Devon in the far south-west of the UK. Although not the most picturesque of Dartmoor settlements, its excellent location and relatively good facilities (for this part of the world) make it a popular place for visitors and locals alike. While there isn't an awful lot to do in the village itself, it makes a great base for exploration of the National Park, with plenty of excellent walks and daytrips close by for those who enjoy the outdoor life. It is also the site of an infamous prison, and an excellent visitor centre operated by the National Park Authority.
A Brief History
Between the Bronze Age and the 18th Century, very few people lived on Dartmoor at all1. This isn't very surprising, as Dartmoor is a particularly inhospitable place. While the land around is fertile and warmed by the Gulf Stream, the high moorland is battered by wind and rain and is often a few degrees cooler than the lowlands. The soil is also poor and suitable for little but grazing. Most of the land was, and still is, owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, and therefore part of the Prince of Wales's estate. A few villages supported small-scale farming and tin mining, but for the most part there was little reason for people to live there at all.
In 1785, a young man called Thomas Tyrwhitt started to change this. Having been appointed the Duchy's Lord Warden of the Stannaries, a position that gave him a loose rule over the tinners, he was determined to make the moor profitable and started to work a farm at Tor Royal, a mile or so from modern Princetown. It was close to quarries at Whiteworks and Merrivale, and he soon had the idea of building a town in the area to provide a labour force. Word spread, and in 1795 Princetown had its first pub, originally called 'The Prince's Arms' but now 'The Plume of Feathers'. By 1798, he was confident enough of his plans to start building a house at Tor Royal, and was starting to have much grander ideas.
Tyrwhitt spread the news that there was work in his quarries, and his plans began to take shape. A small community of hardy quarriers built their homes in a shallow valley nearby, and Tyrwhitt named this village 'Princetown' in honour of his master. As the village expanded Tyrwhitt realised that the inhospitable conditions and easy supply of building material would make it a perfect place for a prison. The jails of the nearby port of Plymouth were becoming overrun with captives from the war with Napoleonic France, and work duly began in 1806. It took three years to complete and cost £127,000, and its prisoners built a church - St Michael's is the only church in the country to have been entirely built by prisoners of war. American soldiers were also imprisoned at the prison in 1812, but by 1816 it was empty. In those four years, 1,500 French and American prisoners had died amid claims of brutality; all were buried in a nearby field. There would be no more convicts until 1850.
Quarrying, however, was a great success. A railway was opened to carry granite down to Plymouth, and the old prison was used to store cut peat - a new and similarly burgeoning industry. Tyrwhitt was knighted in 1812 for his work at Princetown. He died in 1833, but the village continued to expand for another half a century. The infamous prison opened again. A school, hotel, steam railway and two more pubs were built, and for a brief time Princetown became a boom town.
It couldn't last. The industries began to falter, and the future started to look as bleak for the inhabitants as the weather. Fortunately, tourism stepped in. The granite railway was sold to the Great Western Railway, who operated a passenger service. A steady stream of visitors made the trip to see the prison and take in the fresh air. Arthur Conan Doyle's 1902 book The Hound of the Baskervilles added to the mystique of the moor, Princetown was one of the settings in the book, and it is believed that Grampen Mire in the book is based on nearby Fox Tor Mire.
The quarries are now silent, and the peat-cutters gone. The railway was dismantled in 1956, and the police station has been turned into a fish-and-chip shop. The old Duchy Hotel has been turned into a visitor centre. No longer the centre of Dartmoor industry, Princetown has become arguably the best place from which to explore Dartmoor.
The village consists of one main street, Tavistock Road (the B3357), where just about all of the places of interest can be found. The most obvious building is the prison, clearly visible to visitors approaching from the east. Its stark and functional architecture exudes grim incarceration, and even from the outside it is easy to see how its reputation was built. Today, the prison is also home to an excellent museum.
The old Duchy Hotel dominates the south-eastern end of Tavistock Road. Built in 1809 and 1810, it was abandoned around a decade later and not re-opened until 1850, the same year that the prison brought a revival in Princetown's fortunes. The front façade and interior were modernised in the early 20th Century, before being taken over by the Home Office for use as a Prison Officers' mess. In 1991, the Dartmoor National Park Authority took it over and it now houses an excellent interactive visitors' centre, as well as the offices of the local Dartmoor Preservation association charity. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed here in 1901 while researching The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you visit, look out for the floor mosaic which quotes Homer's Odyssey: 'Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest'. A car park adjoins the centre; payment is by contribution to an 'honesty box'.
Neither of these buildings is the most prominent feature of the village, though. For miles around, you'll see the 750-feet-tall BBC television mast, a mile away on top of North Hessary Tor. Erected in 1955, it is an odd sight to see in the middle of a National Park, but is a useful navigational tool for walkers and is a good measure of whether the cloud is coming down or not. It's a fairly easy stroll to the top to take in the view from North Hessary Tor.
Why Go There?
Well, if you like rain, you won't find anywhere better in the whole of the south west of England - the village gets between 80 and 100 inches of rain every year. Apart from that, it's a great centre for outdoor enthusiasts. The Two Moors' Way, which connects Dartmoor and Exmoor, runs through the village, and there are plenty of excellent walking routes running out of the south and west sides of the village. The bleak expanses of the north moor are just a five-minute drive away, and the village is a splendid base for driving tours as well. If you like rock-climbing, most of the famous Dartmoor crags and boulders are within a twenty-minute drive. Archaeology buffs will find plenty of superb sites nearby, including the famous dual stone rows at Merrivale, the Bronze Age village at Grimspound and the Grey Wethers stone circle.
Princetown has three pubs, all of which serve good beer and food. The Prince of Wales is on Tavistock Road, between the prison and the visitor centre. It was once home to the microbrewery, which produces local beers 'Jail Ale' and 'Dartmoor IPA', but with expansion the brewery has moved a full 100 metres away to a warehouse on Station Road. It's the least traditional of the Princetown pubs and attracts a mainly local clientèle. Opposite the visitor centre is the oldest pub in Princetown, the Plume of Feathers. Something of a Dartmoor institution, the Plume's good beer garden, low ceilings and uneven floors make it a great choice for a pint, and the food really is excellent. It can get busy at weekends, but if you call ahead they will sometimes reserve tables. Next door is the Railway Inn, a good old-fashioned pub with an open fire and a quieter, more welcoming atmosphere. The staff and regulars are invariably friendly and the food has a home-cooked honesty - it's a very difficult place to dislike. Walkers, dogs and well-behaved children are welcome in all three.
Cream teas and lunches are available in all the pubs, but if you prefer a cafe atmosphere there are two choices. The Old Police Station Cafe is housed, incredibly enough, in the old police station, and is well-placed to take advantage of the coachloads of tourists that disembark from their tours a few yards away. It's very much set up for large groups, and although the prices are reasonable and the food good, it can feel a little soulless. Occasional exhibitions of work by local artists make it worth a visit, though. There is also the friendly and cheap Fox Tor Cafe, adjacent to the Railway Inn, which is well set up for walkers; the place is often full of teachers tucking into large fry-ups while their charges wander the moor alone. It's also the only place in the village with an off-license, and it has a small general store.
All of the pubs and cafes in the village have their own 'letterboxes'. Letterboxing is an orienteering game where one tries to solve a clue in order to find a plastic box with a stamp in it, usually out on the open moor. Anyone curious enough to know more will find Princetown a great place to start. Just ask at the bar for the box (and, if necessary, an explanation of the whole mad idea) - within an hour or so, your collection will be off to a flying start with half a dozen or so stamps.
There is also a convenience store and Post Office on Tavistock Road, and a petrol station near the Railway Inn.
Rough and ready accommodation is not in short supply in the village. The Plume of Feathers has a campsite, bunkhouse and a few B&B rooms; the Railway a campsite; and the Fox Tor Cafe a bunkhouse. Further away, the Two Bridges Hotel (two miles) and Prince Hall Hotel (three miles) have a different class of accommodation. Call ahead and book if possible, especially if you're planning to visit in the school holidays or on summer weekends.
An odd little triangle of roads leads to the village, with the B3212 (Plymouth to Exeter) road joining the B3352 at a mini-roundabout at the south-eastern end of the village. Princetown is well signposted from near Ashburton on the A38, Moretonhampstead on the east of the moor and from Yelverton to the west. Travelling from the north requires a journey to either Moretonhampstead or Tavistock; while Okehampton is only about 15 miles away as the crow flies, it's about 40 miles by road.
Bus number 82, the Transmoor link service, runs from Exeter, Newton Abbot and Plymouth twice a day on Sundays, stopping at various points on the moor. See Traveline South West's impartial website for more details.